The killing of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests against police brutality and prompted many to take stock of the country’s long history of racism toward Black people.
President Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden reacted to the killing and the demonstrations in dramatically different ways, shining a light on how each has approached the complicated issue of race throughout their political careers.
Trump has consistently downplayed the role of racism in American life while simultaneously attacking protesters, making racist and xenophobic comments and claiming he’s done more for Black people than any other president “with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln.”
Biden has positioned himself as a crusader for racial justice who’ll use the presidency to correct long-standing social inequities and restore the climate of relative tolerance that marked his two terms as vice president under Barack Obama. He’s chosen as his vice presidential running mate California Sen.
Kamala Harris, setting her up to become the first person of color and the first woman to hold that position if elected.
Despite their differences, both candidates face an electorate that’s somewhat doubtful that either can improve racial tensions.
Only about a third of voters had confidence that Trump could effectively handle race relations, according to a Pew Research poll conducted in June. Fewer than half of respondents felt confident that Biden would be effective on the issue.
Trump claims he’s done more to help African Americans than his predecessor, Obama, the nation’s first Black president. He says he also comes out ahead of Lyndon Johnson, who signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Acts of 1965.
“With African Americans, I’m doing very well,” Trump told Axios reporter Jonathan Swan during an interview broadcast on HBO in early August.
“They had the best employment numbers they’ve ever had; they had the best job numbers they’ve ever had; they were making more money than they’ve ever made,” he said. “We were all set until we got hit by China with the virus.… We were becoming a very unified country.”
Yet Trump often undercuts his self-praise by seeming unaware of basic facts about Black Americans, such as their greater risk than whites of being killed by police, or the reality that despite historically low jobless figures for Black Americans pre-pandemic, the wealth gap between Black households and white ones is as wide under his administration as it was 30 years ago.
He’s been defensive, obtuse or outright dismissive when discussing racial inequities, white supremacist violence and his own stereotyping of Black people, Latinos, Muslims, Asians and immigrants from Central America as threats to public safety and health.
Trump has described some majority Black nations as “shithole” countries while suggesting, “We should have people from places like Norway.” And within days of Harris being named Biden’s vice presidential running mate, he perpetuated the false claim that Harris, who was born in Oakland to an Indian-immigrant mother and Jamaican-immigrant father, might not be eligible to serve as vice president.
He launched his political career by spreading similar racist innuendos suggesting that President Obama wasn’t a natural-born U.S. citizen.
Trump acknowledged in the Axios interview that “the knee on the neck was a disgrace,” referring to George Floyd’s death as a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly eight minutes. The 46-year-old Black man’s death set off months of peaceful protests and sometimes violent clashes with authorities.
But when asked what “systemic racism” means to him, he acted glib.
“Does anybody really answer that question accurately?” he replied. “Does anybody really know?”
Trump insists that police violence is a major problem for white people. Black Americans are more than three times more likely to be killed by police than white Americans.
As for the Black Lives Matter movement, he calls the activists “anarchists” and “Marxists” who never should’ve gained “respectability.”
Even so, Trump has shown an openness to criminal justice reforms that would reduce the number of Black people in the nation’s prisons, and his administration has taken steps to aid business development, job creation and educational programs in communities of color.
In 2018, Trump signed the First Step Act, the first major criminal justice reform law in over a decade. The law reduced sentences for some prisoners who were given mandatory minimum sentences, and it funded programs to reduce recidivism by helping released prisoners transition back into society.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that Trump signed into law in 2017 set up “opportunity zones” in more than 8,700 census tracts across the U.S. where the poverty rate is on average twice the nationwide rate of about 12%, and that includes many neighborhoods with high populations of people of color.
Entrepreneurs and real-estate developers who invest in these zones receive a capital-gains tax break lasting seven years on the money they put into those projects, and if they hold onto those investments for at least a decade, they pay no capital-gains taxes at all.
The program is fairly new so gauging its success is difficult, and the coronavirus outbreak has stalled many development plans around the country.
Trump also signed a bipartisan bill in 2019 to renew $255 million in annual funding to historically Black colleges and universities and other institutions that primarily serve students of color that was at risk of lapsing. Some schools would’ve faced deep budget cuts and layoffs if the funding hadn’t been approved.
At the same time, Trump has frequently fueled hatred against migrants from Latin American countries by describing this population as infiltrated by dangerous criminals. He launched his 2016 campaign with a vow to build a wall along the U.S.- Mexico border to stop the flow of migrants in the U.S. illegally.
His administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policies have led to migrant parents being separated from their children along the U.S.-Mexico border and migrants being required to endure often dangerous conditions in Mexico while they wait for their asylum hearings in the U.S.
Biden has staked his third presidential bid around the idea that Americans deserve straight talk from their leaders about the country’s divisions, especially when it comes to the subject of race.
“The battle for the soul of this nation has been a constant push and pull for more than 240 years, a tug of war between the American ideal that we’re all created equal and the harsh reality that racism has long torn us apart,” the presumptive Democratic nominee said during a speech in Philadelphia in early June.
Biden speaks like a man who harbors no doubt that’s he’s pulling for the right side in that enduring tug of war. The reality has been, at times, more muddled.
As a candidate, he’s promised to bring an end to the “selfishness and fear” ushered in by the Trump presidency, and he’s said he won’t exploit the country’s racial wounds for political gain like his Republican opponent.
Black voters, especially those over 50, back the former vice president by wide margins over Trump. Many cite Biden’s long-standing relationship with the Black community, his support for civil rights legislation and his service under Obama.
But throughout his five decades in politics, the 77-year-old has at times embodied the conflict between the nation’s idealism and its treatment of people of color.
As a young lawmaker, he joined with segregationists in the 1970s to fight against court-ordered busing, at a time when Black students in cities like Boston risked being spat on and jeered with racial epithets on their way to newly integrated schools. And he’s faced scrutiny among progressives and activists over his support for a 1994 crime bill that’s been blamed for the mass incarceration of Black men.
Biden once described the Harvard-educated Obama as “clean” and “articulate” in one of many tone-deaf attempts to demonstrate his racial openness. His campaign recently had to clarify remarks he made to a group of Black and Latino journalists that suggesting that Latinos are a diverse community representing a broad range of political views, “unlike the African American community, with notable exceptions.”
Despite his stumbles, Biden often appears emotional when describing how Black people’s struggle for acceptance and equality has personally inspired him.
Although he hasn’t been an outspoken champion of reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans, he recently laid out plans to close the wealth gap between Black and white Americans and combat inequities in the criminal justice system, the economy, housing and other areas.
He has also promised to appoint the first Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Biden has also tried to shore up his somewhat softer support among Latinos by announcing a set of economic policies targeting that community, along with immigration reforms.
Biden plans to invest in programs that increase home ownership among families of color, including creating a new tax credit of up to $15,000 to help lower- and middle-income families buy the first home.
He also wants to create a $30-billion Small Business Opportunity Fund to help kick-start public-private developments in communities of color and fine-tune Trump’s “Opportunity Zone” program to make it more effective at spurring economic development in qualifying low-income census tracts.
The former vice president says he’ll eliminate state and local regulations, including racially discriminatory zoning ordinances, that make it harder for Black people and other people of color to buy or rent a home. And he’ll direct more than $50 billion in venture capital funds to small businesses owned by Black entrepreneurs and other people of color.
He plans to require the Federal Reserve to track and report data on racial disparities in the economy.
Biden has never been able to live down his support for the Clinton-era crime bill, but his criminal justice policies target racial inequities in policing, the courts and incarceration.
He’s called for greater accountability for police officers who use deadly force and better training for officers. And he’s vowed to eliminate mandatory minimums for nonviolent crimes and the cash bail system, as well as end the practice of incarcerating people for drug use alone.
Biden’s pitch to Latino voters includes promises to create a path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million immigrants in the country illegally as well as longtime refugees from countries devastated by natural disasters and civil unrest who have temporary protective status.
He’d offer free tuition for Latino, Black and Native American students whose families make less than $125,000 a year at public colleges and universities, HBCUs and at other private educational institutions that serve populations of color. And his platform calls for forgiving all federal student-loan debt related to undergraduate tuition at HBCUs and minority-serving institutions for debt holders earning $125,000 or less.
Biden also would direct the Justice Department to prioritize the prosecution of hate crimes, which have sharply surged during the Trump presidency.